COUNTRYLINK trains may be handed to a private operator or stop running altogether under a plan handed to the NSW government.
The proposal is buried in the long-awaited Infrastructure NSW report released yesterday by former premier Nick Greiner.
Time is running out for the government to determine the fate of the iconic Countrylink XPT trains, the majority of which are now nearly 30 years old despite being designed to last just 25.
The Casino, Grafton and Brisbane XPT services stop daily at Broadmeadow and Maitland on the North Coast line while the Armidale and Moree Xplorer fleet links Sydney with the north-west including stops at Broadmeadow, Maitland, Singleton and Muswellbrook.
The XPT trains were only ever meant to travel 6.25 million kilometres but have notched up nearly 10 million in the three decades since they were built.
Some are already experiencing ‘fatigue and corrosion issues’, according to a confidential report compiled late last year.
Infrastructure NSW has warned a decision needs to be made whether the “substantial investment required for new rolling stock” is justified given “very low regional rail patronage”.
It said alternative options included privatisation or replacing trains with coaches.
NSW Labor slammed the idea and warned the government to immediately rule out changes.
The XPT is one of the few ways many rural and regional residents can get to and from capital cities. It travels to Brisbane, Casino, Grafton, Melbourne and Dubbo and stops at dozens of stations along the way.
The clock is also ticking on Countrylink’s Xplorer fleet, which first entered service two decades ago and links Armidale, Moree, Griffith, Broken Hill and Canberra to Sydney.
The most lucrative Countrylink routes are south to Melbourne and along the north coast. However, trains travelling in the north-west, west and south to the ACT pull just a fraction of the overall revenue and NSW Labor fears these routes would be axed under a private operator.
“If the O'Farrell government agrees to these proposals, it will be a disaster for rural and regional communities across NSW who will lose vital public transport connections and lose millions of tourist dollars,” said the opposition transport spokeswoman, Penny Sharpe.
She called on rural and regional National and Liberal MPs to block any changes.
In a statement, NSW transport minister Gladys Berejiklian acknowledged action was needed but did not answer questions about how much it would cost or whether privatisation was possible.
She has previously said privatising CountryLink was not government policy, however the Infrastructure NSW recommendation may prompt a rethink.
Transport for NSW is currently investigating the future of Countrylink services.
A report by the department last month found country passenger rail services are “approaching a critical decision point”.
Despite a recent increase, patronage has fallen from 2.2 million passengers to 1.9 million passengers over the last decade. It hit a low of 1.55 million in 2008.
In 2009/10, Countrylink cost $111 million to operate but generated just $41.5 million in revenue.
One option to reduce the cost to the taxpayer is to allow Countrylink trains to haul light freight as well as passengers.
The Infrastructure NSW report said replacing the XPT fleet with coaches or privatising it may “be more economically viable and could provide faster journey times.”
When asked how much it would cost to replace the fleet and keep it in public ownership, a spokeswoman for Infrastructure NSW said cost estimates were not known.
The 200-page report also delivered sobering news for long-running campaigns to have historic railway lines reopened for passenger traffic.
“The very limited role rail plays in regional transport leads Infrastructure NSW to conclude that the case for (reopening the) line…will need careful assessment on a case by case basis and is unlikely to be viable in most cases,” the report found.
The Transport for NSW report into the future of country rail is expected to be released later this year.